pirate X
Writing Pirate X

This is an ongoing blog about 'Pirate X', my historical pirate novel that I began way back in 1998. It's been a long voyage, and it's one I hope will culminate in the publication of the novel in September 2011.

For now, I'm using the template of my website - I will change this in the future, but right now, this is where I'm wrestling with the mammoth job of completely restructuring the whole novel, based on new research!

Word Count

When I started this revision, the publisher said it had to come down to 60,000 words. It started at 80,000 and as of today, I have whittled it down to around 69,000 - but that's without the new ending added in (that I haven't written yet). The new ending could add another 2000+ words. I knew when I started this revision that I had a big saggy middle to deal with, so it wasn't going to be a problem to cut a lot of that.

But much of what I cut needed to be put in somewhere else, and when you cut huge chunks, you end up writing new stuff to make connections and flow. I am celebrating at the moment because I have finished the big hatchet job. I think I have probably cut around 23,000 words (at least) but have added around 12,000 new ones. Oh dear. So that's why I'm sitting on 69,000 at the moment.

I do know I'm a bit wordy. I repeat things accidentally, I don't use details well enough (so they add to character and action), but I'm also worried that far too often I have slipped into telling. It's a danger with first person narrative, especially when you are trying to move things along.

Now I will maybe write a rough ending, and then leave the manuscript for a couple of weeks or so. Then it will be time to print it out and try to read it with a fresh eye. An eye that has a hatchet ready!

Some Background on this novel

Back in 1999, I found a story in a book about pirates. This was a story about a man called Stede Bonnet, who gave up a life of luxury and money, and a big sugar plantation in Barbados, to become a pirate. The problem was - he wasn't very good at it. In fact, he was pretty hopeless. He only lasted about 16 months and then he and his crew were captured and hanged. Along the way, he lost his ship to Blackbeard and also lost half of his crew at one point, and constantly struggled with the threat of mutiny. I loved this whole story and decided I wanted to write a historical novel based on it.

I did an enormous amount of research, I created a character called Will Shepherd, who ends up on Bonnet's ship by accident, I added more fictional characters, and I wrote a novel that was 120,000 words long. Too long! I tried to cut it down and managed to whittle it to 115,000. In 2002, I took 40 pages of it to the SCBWI conference in LA, where the person I got for an editorial consult basically tore it to shreds, and offered me no suggestions on what to do next.

I threw it in a bottom drawer and decided it had all been a waste. But the story wouldn't leave me alone. Two years later, I pulled it out for another go. This time, I changed two major elements. It went from third person to first person narrator, and it became a timeshift novel. Will begins in present-day London, and goes back to 1717. And after a lot of cutting, I got it down to 80,000 words.

It's now more than ten years later, and all that pirate research has not gone astray. I've written four Littlest Pirate chapter books (three of which are now picture books as well, the third due out 2011), a fantasy pirate novel called Pirates of Quentaris, and used pirates in a variety of other stories and poems.

And with Pirate X, I am on Draft No. 9, trying to achieve 60,000 words and not sure how that's going to go!

Weekend Work

This weekend I went away to the bush (literally) where there was no internet, and no emails. It was a lesson, yet again, on how easy it is to let the internet pull me out of the story again and again. Yes, it's handy for quick research, such as needing to know the symptoms of scurvy and syphilis. But what I found, once I was no longer able to get on the net in an instant, is that my brain went right into Pirate X and started to fully engage with the characters.

I came home with piles of notes, a new plot diagram (which came to me while I was lying awake on Sunday morning in my cosy bed) and new ideas on how to rewrite the prologue. This is a prologue, mind you, that I thought was "set in stone" and didn't need changing. Ha! Currently my brain is buzzing with stuff about the novel, and ways to change and improve it. Which is amazing, considering I am still in the hatchet stage.

I did an exercise on Sunday morning, because the power was fluctuating and it was time to get off the laptop. It was my tried-and-true exercise about interviewing the main character. I've been struggling with young Will. I think I was trying too hard, and making his life too complicated. When I sat down and did five pages of free writing, letting Will talk in his own voice, I discovered many things that filled in his backstory logically and cohesively. Yet again, this simple exercise reminded me that I need to work harder on characters and their lives before they arrive in the novel. Sounds simple, but when you are fixated on plot, especially when it's a big plot that needs to take historical details and facts into account, it's really easy to forget who the person is you're writing about!

I'm now reading Anne Hood's book on creating character emotions, and thinking about what I need to do to make Will's story real and emotionally engaging to the reader. As we've seen time and time again, plot doesn't do it, character does!

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Hatchet Job

queen anne's revenge cafe
That's hatchet (small axe) - not Hachette, by the way. But it's what I'm faced with right now. My big historical pirate novel, Pirate X, is to be published by UQP next year. I've been working on this for around ten years (on and off) and I guess it's a lesson in perseverance. Originally it was 120,000 words, whittled down to 115,000. That was before I learned how to make huge cuts to plot, rather than just a few words here and there. Then I went to an SCBWI conference in LA, where the person who read my 40 pages for a manuscript consultation basically shredded it with no encouragement whatsoever. (Warning: Beware compulsive shredders. This person was not an editor or agent or publisher.)

That was enough to make me put the book away in my bottom drawer for a couple of years and try to move on. But it wouldn't let me go. I wrote other pirate stories in the meantime, which sold very well, and kept talking about this story during school visits. Because kids wanted to know how come I was so obsessed with pirates! So finally I was able to go back to the manuscript and start again, keeping in mind that despite a lot of positive responses from publishers originally, they all said it was too long!

Draft Number 7 was where the hatchet first came out. I ended up with 80,000 words, and something that was starting to get a lot more interest from publishers, but ... After eight years, and many many thousands of words in different drafts, I had a hard time standing back from it and seeing what else needed to happen with it. Funnily enough, that was when I started teaching a new subject called Story Structure. No longer could I just think about how structure worked, I had to teach it in a way that showed students what it was and how to apply it to their own novels and scripts.

Cut to June 2010. I had a contract for Pirate X. The manuscript had a deadline. And when I pulled out all my research and then looked for what new references were now available, I received a bit of a shock. One new reference in particular basically blew the first half of my novel out of the water! I checked - yes, this new information was solidly backed up. What should I do? Continue on my original path? Or take in the new research? When I pulled out the manuscript (draft 8) and read it, the way was clear. That version had a big, saggy, boring middle. If I was a bit bored reading it, what about everyone else?

Decisions were made. New material was noted, with timelines and dates and names. A new beginning was necessary. After nearly two weeks, I'm still only about 25% of the way through the hatchet job on this novel, and I'm not worrying at this point about either characterisation, setting or the quality of writing. It's all about plot and structure. About hacking and cutting and moving great chunks around (or deleting them). I hope that in about a week's time, I'll have a "rough cut" of the novel that I'll print out in order to see what I have. It'll be rough, it'll be jagged around the edges, it'll probably still be bleeding! But hopefully it'll be story with pacing and excitement and plot twists and tension, and then I'll fix the rest.
(By the way, Queen Anne's Revenge is the name of Blackbeard's ship which does feature in my novel. Unfortunately the cafe wasn't open the day we were in Beaufort, NC.)